Saving Sammy B: a frigate's Heroic Legacy a crew raced against time to contain flooding and fires after a minestrike in 1988. Their legendary story. Chapter 1 On April 14, 1988. The frigate Samuel B. Roberts, on a resupply mission

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Saving Sammy B: A Frigate's Heroic Legacy
A crew raced against time to contain flooding and fires after a minestrike in 1988. Their legendary story.

Chapter 1
On April 14, 1988. The frigate Samuel B. Roberts, on a resupply mission,

drove through the Persian Gulf alone.

ABOARD THE FRIGATE SAMUEL B. ROBERTS, Mayport, Fla. – Senior Chief Gunner's Mate Tom Reinert was standing watch by his 76mm gun topside in the sweltering Persian Gulf heat when the deck below him buckled. He was driven to his knees. "I looked aft, and everything behind the mast was just a wall of flame, towering up into the sky," Reinert recalled. His first thought was that the ship was going down. There was no way a ship the size of the frigate Samuel B. Roberts could endure such a huge blast and survive. But after that, as flaming pieces of insulation and debris rained down, his thoughts immediately shifted to one thing: damage control. Reinert, like the rest of crew, jumped into action.
The Sammy B was in desperate straits, and the nearest U.S. ship was nearly 100 miles away. A cheap, Russian-designed Iranian mine had shattered the keel and knocked out the power. Within 90 seconds, the frigate had taken on nearly half its total displacement in water — two main spaces completely flooded. It was April 14, 1988: the day USS Samuel B. Roberts, on her maiden cruise, should have sunk in the Persian Gulf but was saved by a herculean effort. For the next four hours, the Sammy B's beleaguered crew waged a fight for survival that stands as a testament to the simple truth that a well-trained, well-led crew can overcome seemingly impossible odds. The lessons have been passed down to successive generations of Roberts' crew members through the ship's traditions and, even as the ship prepares to retire from active service May 22, it's a legacy that will live on.
Accounts from crew members and news reports from the time reveal a crew that was close to fanatical about preparation, and leaders at every level who instilled the idea that Roberts sailors were the best in the fleet and would act accordingly. "The decisions that saved the Roberts, 90 percent of them happened in the weeks and months and even years before the ship hit the mine," said Brad Peniston, author of the book "No Higher Honor," an account of Samuel B. Roberts' fight. "Because they were, from the get-go, a really proud ship, determined to be the best ship they could. And they had internalized that being the best ship meant getting ready to do damage control." This is the story of how the crew of the Samuel B. Roberts lived up to its ideals and cemented its own place in history, through the eyes of those who witnessed it and those who carried on the ship's legacy. The ship is scheduled to be decommissioned May 22 in Mayport, Florida.

The Samuel B. Roberts was built in 1986 at Bath Iron Works, Maine. It was the third ship to carry the name. The first Samuel B. Roberts, DE-413, attained legendary status in the Navy for leading a suicidal torpedo run on an infinitely superior Japanese force off the Philippine island of Samar. For more than an hour, Sammy B., a small destroyer escort, "fought like a battleship" before being sunk by shells from the Japanese battleship Kongo, taking 89 of her crew to the bottom with her. The Roberts and her sister ships in the task force stopped the Japanese advance and saved countless U.S. troops fighting under Gen. Douglas MacArthur on the island of Leyte. The captain of DE-413, Cmdr. Robert Copeland, filed an after-action report that gave FFG-58 its motto: No Higher Honor. The second Sammy B. was a Gearing-class destroyer, commissioned in 1946. It served the fleet for 24 years, being struck in 1970 and sunk a year later as a target.

A sense of heritage and responsibility pervades crews of the frigate Samuel B. Roberts, one of the fleet's few battle-tested ships.

In early 1986, B, FFG-58 was still unfinished when the crew began to assemble. Engineman 2nd Class Mike Tilley, then a young fireman with a sharp wit and propensity for ending up at captain's mast, remembers his time with the pre-commissioning unit Roberts vividly. Tilley grew up in the "Missourah" area of Missouri and joined the Navy in 1985, following in the footsteps of his older brother. "I was getting out of high school and, looking around, there weren't a lot of jobs around here — not back then," Tilley said in a May 16 phone interview. "I saw a lot of the guys around me were getting jobs down at the local gas station pumping gas, and that's what there was to do if you stuck around. So I said, 'I've got to get out and do something.' "

After boot camp and at the end of "A" school, Tilley received orders to the PCU Samuel B. Roberts, the third ship in the Navy to bear the name of a coxswain who posthumously received the Navy Cross for saving Marines by drawing Japanese fire at the Battle of Guadalcanal. Tilley arrived at the Roberts nearly a year prior to its April 1986 commissioning and, like the rest of the crew, remembers filling time at Bath Iron Works by intimately learning every space on the ship. "Chief would hand me a diagram card of the piping and say, 'Here, go trace it. Learn it,' "Tilley recalls. "This was the time before any of the spaces were classified, so I got to learn all the piping in the missile magazine, combat information center, radio — the whole ship."
The ship's chief engineer, retired Capt. Gordan Van Hook, recalled the period during a speech at a 2006 Surface Navy Association meeting. The workers at Bath Iron Works went on strike for a time, and while it delayed Sammy B's construction, the crew seized the opportunity to have unencumbered access to the unfinished ship. "Not only did we roam our entire ship, we roamed throughout the others in various states of construction, conducting [damage control] scavenger hunts and rallies and competitions to test each other's knowledge of not just damage control, but the entire layout of the ship," Van Hook said. "This created a remarkable sense of competition and enthusiasm in the crew. Everyone wanted to show their expertise and try to stump their buddies on facts and layouts that seemed trivial to some, but proved invaluable when we really needed it."
GMCS Reinert said he relished the opportunity to get the crew ready, free from the operational constraints of an active-duty warship. "We used the time we had," he said. "If there was training the guys could go to, they were going." It was also during this time that the crew members got to know their damage control assistant, Lt. Eric Sorensen. Van Hook described Sorensen as a man with laser-like focus on whatever he was tasked to do. "Eric was not universally loved on the ship," Van Hook recalled. "He was not a charismatic leader. When he bore-sighted on something like damage control training, it could be to the exclusion of all else. He was a downright pain in the ass. He was a pain in the ass to everyone, especially me as the chief engineer." But Sorensen had been hand-selected by Roberts' captain, Cmdr. Paul Rinn, for those very qualities. Rinn wasn't a damage control guru, as Van Hook noted, but the skipper recognized his shortcomings. So he recruited someone who would devote himself fully to the job and whip the crew into a damage control machine, capable of rapidly containing the ship's foremost existential threats: fire and flooding.
Sorensen was more than up to the task, and by the time the crew left Bath Iron Works, it was well on its way to becoming a waterfront damage control leader. But if Van Hook remembered Sorensen as a "pain in the ass," Tilley remembered a different term the crew used to describe Sorensen. "We called him the damage control Nazi. The problem with him was that there was never a rest. When you were in the duty section, the rest of the guys were out having a good time, you were back on the ship running drills. If we got underway, as soon as we secured from sea and anchor detail, 'Set General Quarters.' It was constant, just all the time." Tilley said.
Samuel B Roberts (FFG-58) was commissioned April 12, 1986, and spent the next months in shakeouts and workups. Then, as now, certifying a crew for operational duties was an arduous process. The culmination of months of training came in late fall of 1987, when the frigate sailed to Fleet Training Group Guantanamo Bay, where the ship certified its combat systems and, ultimately, aced its mass conflagration drill. "I'm not even going to try and be modest when I tell you we beat every record they had down there," Rinn recalled in a May interview.

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